Disciplining My Child Through “Criminal Minds”

This is a picture I found online. If it had been a picture of the actual incident, the kid would've been crying like Tammy Faye Bakker.

There are times when fatherhood really bites. Sure, most people want to hear about the glorious poetic moments that make people reach for the Kleenex or look back longingly at their child’s baby pictures, but those moments don’t tell the whole tale. If every part of fatherhood was sunshine and sundaes, men wouldn’t build massive basement rooms into which they escape.

I don’t have a basement, so I just blog about the things that drive me crazy. Like yesterday, when I picked Ella up from school and learned that she had told one of her good friends in class, “You need to shut your mouth.”

Now, my daughter is, by all accounts, quite spunky. I would say sassy, but that can be taken too negatively. She’s bright, highly energetic, and sometimes says things that she shouldn’t (and often she has no clue she’s said anything wrong). So when the teacher told me about the infraction, and about the context of it, I immediately felt my blood rise.

Apparently, Ella sensed it too. She immediately started crying.

I can’t remember who wrote the line, but someone once said that it’s easier to stop an out-of-control train than a woman’s tears. That’s certainly true of Ella – once she gets the water flowing, it takes forever and a day to get her to stop. She’s a sensitive little girl, and it just doesn’t take much to make her cry.

So when she started squalling, there was a part of me that felt bad. I knew she knew she was in trouble, and really, isn’t that what discipline is all about? Teaching your child to have a conscience? But I’m too easy on Ella sometimes, so, determined not to be fazed by the tears, I gave her my “disappointed” look, a gaze that, when trained upon my children can wither steel and crush the human soul, but, when trained upon my wife, earns me a “What? Do you have to fart?” Ella withered. The tears flowed harder.

Did I mention we’re still standing inside the church? We hadn’t even made it to the car yet. There I stand like an unfeeling statue and my daughter is weeping so hard she might choke. I gently placed my hand on her shoulder and guided her down the hall.

“Would you like to tell me what happened today?” I asked.

“No,” she replied.

Ask a stupid question… And, if I may have an aside for a moment, this is something I learned from my dad – asking the guilty child to provide their account of the crime – but it’s only been through watching Criminal Minds recently that I’ve learned just how effective this technique is, actually. You watch Hotch or Rossi in an interrogation, and they almost always nail the bad guy by leading him/her into telling their side of the story, and BINGO! – case solved.

And actually, there’s really something to that idea – part of parenthood is being able to profile your kid, to understand their likes and dislikes, to know their personalities so well that you can almost interpret an action without needing the child to do it for you. Maybe I’m just a nerd who likes that sort of thing, but I have to confess: knowing Ella the way I do (and knowing that I don’t know everything about her) helps me to be a better parent.

So, for all you new parents out there: you can learn much about parenthood by watching Criminal Minds. Just sayin’.

In this instance, I knew it was unlike her to say something so brutal to anyone, let alone a friend. It’s just not Ella’s style or personality; she tends to be more affirming than that, even when she’s being bossy. So, as we hopped in the car, I was pretty sure that if I pressed her for an explanation, I would uncover some extenuating circumstances.

Another aside – this doesn’t mean that I was looking for an excuse NOT to discipline her; I was looking for the answers to know how to discipline her correctly. There’s a big difference, in case you didn’t know. Any fool can punish a child – that takes no imagination and next to no skill; but it takes a honest parent to correct a child and teach them something that helps them learn. I’m not down with just punishing a kid (though, sometimes, I see the merits…) so I push to understand and then correct. It also gives me time to calm down so I don’t just beat a butt in my anger.

OK – where were we? Oh yeah – getting the story from Ella.

As it turns out, her friend had been the subject of some teasing all day (apparently Ella and her classmates have become enamored with the subject of pooping in non-bathroom locations) and Ella’s friend wasn’t saying anything to defend herself. And, if you know preschool kids, they don’t know when to back off. If a poop joke is funny the first time, it’s funny the next 312 times. So naturally they just kept pouring it on the poor girl. Finally, Ella had heard enough and, in an epic FAIL of an attempt to support and encourage her friend, she said, “You need to make so-and-so shut her mouth.”

My daughter, the life-coach.

Suffice it to say, after hearing this, I felt differently. First of all, what she said made more sense than what the teacher had reported. Let me pause for a second and say I support the teacher 100% in telling me what she heard and how she handled it. She did it the absolute right way and I got her back. Just because it didn’t sound like something Ella would say doesn’t mean Ella didn’t or wouldn’t say it; in point of fact, she said something pretty darned close, in both verbiage and meaning.

But I felt differently because I now understood that Ella didn’t mean to attack her friend, she meant to help her. And honestly, I see how she comes to this: it’s a bizarre and perfect mix of her mother’s and my personalities. I tend to be the more compassionate, side-with-the-victim person in our family, and Rachel tends to be the shut-up-and-fix-it person. Ella somehow meshed both into one statement and simultaneously encouraged and berated her friend.

That’s a little thing we like to call talent.

Anyway, long story short, I did what any good parent would do:

“Well, thank you for the explanation. We’ll have to see what your mother says when we get home.”

That’s right – I shifted the burden to Moms. Well, part of the burden. When we got home, I gave Rachel a quick rundown and then had Ella recount her crime for her mother. Rachel seemed satisfied with the mea culpa, and worked out a plea bargain for Ella: Ella would have play quietly in her room instead of being able to watch a movie, and she would have to apologize to her friend at church last night. Ella nodded and slinked away her room, halfway between relief and devastation. I watched approvingly.

If it had been an episode of Criminal Minds, we would’ve quoted some author everyone says they’ve read but no one really has. And we would have been on a private plane. But this is life, and real drama isn’t so tidy.

Postscript – Ella apologized to her friend last night before their Bible class. Her friend looked at her, said, “What are you talking about?”, and then skipped away to play with a puzzle. Again, not as tidy as a TV ending, but ultimately good for my kid.

The Queen Has Returned!

Only one woman may wear the crown in our house...

It was a bit of strange week last week, which, if you read any of my previous blogs (like this one or this one or this one) is code for: my kids kicked my butt without my wife around. It was bad. I told Rachel last night that when it comes to being a single dad with two kids, the best strategy to employ is the same that you’re supposed to use if you come across an angry bear in the woods:

Just lay down and pretend to be dead.

It’s not a fool-proof plan, of course. Mainly because the danger levels aren’t the same. A bear will walk past you. Your kids will jump on top of you and one will pull your eyelids open while the other whacks you in the groin with a stick saying, “Wake up daddy!” I’ve found that if you can hold out for more than thirty minutes, the kids will lose interest and you can actually get some rest for at least 45 seconds.

Of course, now that Rachel’s home, I can just go back to what I normally am: useless. It’s quite a relief.

Yes, I picked Rachel up from the airport on Saturday afternoon. I was so excited to see her – nothing makes you appreciate the singular talents and qualities of your spouse like time apart (with you being stuck with the kids). I got to the airport right on schedule and made my way to the yawning maw of Hartsfield, otherwise known as the arrivals lobby. It’s essentially a wide space where five or six escalators dump people out in bunches to scramble for a familiar face or book it to the baggage claim to see if their luggage made the flight. It’s kind of creepy, in a way – since you can’t see the people riding up the escalators, you can’t really keep a sharp lookout for the person on whom you’re waiting. People just fairly explode into view and you have to scan faces pretty quickly to see if your loved one is among them.

One lady off to my right was standing there when I arrived, and was still there when Rachel and I left. I felt sorry for her – she kept mumbling to herself, “Hi, mom. I’m gay.” It didn’t seem like she was feeling confident about the reunion. I wish I could’ve seen how it went.

I didn’t get to, though, because Rachel came gliding into view. She looked fabulous, as always, and she had somehow acquired a new carry-on bag. Turns out, she had brought home two new bags, both stuffed with Easter goodies for our kids and for our three nephews. I quietly noted that it was good I had driven the truck to the airport. We grabbed a bite to eat, loaded up the truck, and booked it to our church for the annual Easter Egg Hunt.

Rachel was so excited to see Ella – she snuck up on her from behind (Ella was busy eating a bowl of ice cream) and tapped her on the shoulder. Ella turned around and screamed, “Mommy!” then jumped into Rachel’s arms. It was a Hallmark Channel movie moment – a happy family reunited at a massive community celebration. It was good to see.

Unfortunately, things turned into a Lifetime movie from there – a female protagonist tries to salvage a family on the verge of collapse and everything is the man’s fault.

To say that there has been some conflict upon Rachel’s return would be an understatement. Now, it hasn’t been bad (we didn’t need the plates that got broken anyway. Kidding!) – it’s just been a re-adjustment for all of us. Jon can’t decide which parent he wants more: the one he’s become comfortable with over the past few days, or the one that he missed so much. That makes him a little fussy and a wee bit hard to deal with. But we’ve managed.

Ella, however, is a different story. She and Rachel have butted heads almost non-stop since we all finally got home. Ella has become accustomed to her role as The Negotiator, and has been trying her tactics out on Rachel. They are not working. Rachel, being a female and well-schooled in the ancient art of successful thinking (what we guys call “getting your way”), doesn’t cave into Ella’s demands. In fact, she can go tit-for-tat with Ella’s attempts to turn the situation into her favor, and Ella gets flustered at the sudden ineffectiveness of her tactics. She’ll look at me as if to say, “It works on that dumb animal, why doesn’t it work on Mom?”

Now, again, keep in mind we have sweet kids, so this isn’t like an episode of Intervention or anything. It’s really been over smaller issues, things that I ultimately will cave on because they don’t seem like that big of a deal. But Rachel views the smaller issues as the gateway to larger ones and is determined to put a stop to it. As Rachel put it yesterday afternoon, “Ella, it seems to me like you’ve had the run of the place since I’ve been gone.”

She’s right – Ella has had run of the place because I suck at single-parenting (see the strategy for single dads as outlined above). I value peace too highly, and sometimes the price for peace is steep. Of course, when Rachel pointed out the fact that I let our five year-old have total sway for a week, I felt tremendously guilty. I felt small and stupid. I felt ineffective. Humiliated. Worthless. Lower than worm poo.

Then I realized I had survived (my ultimate goal, in all honesty) and I immediately felt better. Especially once Rachel made the following statement:

“There’s only one woman that runs this house. And it’s me. Guess we’ll have to re-learn that.”

Yes, the Queen has returned!

Thank God.

Day Two – My Daughter, The Negotiator

This is her "Ah-ha! I've got you!" face. She makes it a lot.

I think my kid is going to grow up and be a lawyer. In fact, I know she is. I don’t know of any other five year-olds who put as much effort and thought into their begging to get their way.

Most kids just pitch one: eyes bulge, veins throb, tongues glisten with spittle, as the back of the little darling’s throat bleeds from the banshee wail pouring out of its mouth. Not my kid. She sidles up next to you, all sweet and cuddly, and she weaves her hand into yours with a smile. She kisses you on the cheek and then puts her head on your shoulder, and then – just for the certitude – she let’s out a little sigh of contentedness that would make even Ms. Hannigan’s heart melt. That’s when she hits you.

“Can I have some ice cream?”

“Daddy, can I watch just a little bit of my movie?”

“Can I stay up just a little later and play?”

“Daddy, what’s the limit on your credit card?”

Bam. She’s baited you with the sweet stuff, then she sets the hook good and deep. Now, sometimes, you are powerless to resist (or, if you’re my parents, all the time you are powerless to resist). Those moments happen, when she’s timed it just right and your mood is just right or your mind is somewhere else and you decide that, in the grand scheme of things, one more scoop of vanilla won’t end the earth. Those moments are harmless (or you tell yourself that) and don’t really reveal her true gift.

No, that only comes out when you tell her no. Ella looks at you, as if you spoke in a foreign language, and then re-phrases the question.

“I can have some ice cream?”

The dialog then runs like this:

“I said ‘no, you can’t have any ice cream.'”

“Why not daddy?” (Standard rebuttal. All kids do this.)

“Because you’ll ruin your appetite. Wait until after dinner.”

“But I’m hungry now.” (Solid logic for a five year old.)

“Then you need to go ahead and eat your dinner.”

“But then there won’t be room for ice cream.” (Smart kid, huh? She knows if she eats, she’ll get full and won’t really want the ice cream.)

“You’re right. But you need to eat healthy food first, and junk food second.”

“What’s for dinner again?” (Stall tactic. Usually a diversion while she thinks of another angle. Normally I would say don’t answer it, but if you don’t she’ll keep repeating until you do. Either way, she gets some time to think.)


“Those aren’t very healthy. Those are junk food.” (She establishes equivalency between my healthy food and her junk food. A semantic argument is now initiated.)

“Tacos aren’t like a salad, but they’re not like ice cream. You can’t eat ice cream for dinner.”

“Why not?” (Stalling again, but she’s got you on the ropes now.)

“Because, you need something filling to help you grow healthy.”

“Ice cream makes me full.” (See how she adroitly uses your own terminology to her advantage?)

“Yes, but being full and eating filling food isn’t the same.”

“It isn’t?” (Said with a half-legit, half-mocking raised eyebrow. Now you have to split hairs to nail down your meaning and she still gets more time to think.)

“Not, it’s not.”

“What’s the difference?” (What? You don’t think she’s gonna let you get off that easy, do you?)

“Ice cream has a lot of sugar in it, and too much sugar, though it makes your belly feel full, isn’t good for you. It’s not a good kind of full. You want a healthy full that gives you energy and keeps you well, so you don’t have to go to the hospital.” *

*This is a blatantly dirty trick on my part. She’s asthmatic, and has been to the hospital at least once a year for the past three years due to asthma related complications. Ella despises the hospital on the same level a Republican hates poor people or a Democrat hates good planning, so this is a very thinly veiled threat that if she doesn’t comply with my wishes, she’ll end up with an IV. Like I said, dirty.

“I don’t want to go to the hospital.”

“Good. Then eat your tacos.”

“How many bites do I need to eat to qualify for ice cream?” (Qualifying is something that my father-in-law, Jim White came up with a long time ago: the grandkids have to eat a certain amount of the food on their plate in order to ‘qualify’ for some dessert, which is served proportionally to the amount of food the kid has eaten.)

“Well, the more bites you take, the more ice cream you’ll get.”

“Oh.” (She’s stumped now. I didn’t give her a hard figure, just a vague promise that if she eats a lot, she’ll get a lot more ice cream. Back to the ‘if I eat my dinner, I’ll be too full for ice cream’ dilemma, only with a twist: how much is enough to get the maximum amount of ice cream and yet still leave room in the stomach for said ice cream? It’s the five year-old’s version of Ockham’s Razor.)

“Mmmmm.” (I’m just happy to have a moment’s peace at this point.)

“How about five?” (She knows this is usually the number I pull from my hat. She’s flattering me now.)

“Five BIG bites. Not your usual pitiful little bites.”

“Five BIG bites or five big bites?” (Semantics again.)

“Five BIG bites. You know the drill.”

“Urrrrggghshhhhtfl.” (Gagging.) “Your bites are too big daddy. How about five big bites instead?” (She’s made an attempt to meet the burden of proof, and is now arguing it’s too onerous.)

“Fine. Five big bites. But I’m counting.”

“Okay!” (Gobbles down five relatively decent sized bites.) “I’m ready for my ice cream now.”

“All right. But you only get as much as you ate.”

“Thank you, daddy.” (“Nice doin’ bidness with you, sucker.”)

And so it goes. I’m hoping to channel this into the debate club, or mock trial team at her elementary school. I swear, if I ever have to stand before the bench and require representation, I’m calling my daughter to my defense. I think she would wear out the Nine Supremes.

By the way – did I mention this is only Day TWO of Rachel’s trip?